Thursday, 29 September 2016

Brown Hawk Owl...

This is one bird that took my heart ever since I first saw it in July this year. The birds were interesting and listed common but difficult to spot unless you discover it by chance or someone points out the exact location to you - and then too you have to be lucky enough to have light to spot it and photograph it. Well it seems I was lucky on all the above points. Well the story is simple - I had one friend over from Hyderabad for Birding and this was his 'Very high on priority' - bird to see list. Well I had seen it once and was fairly confident that I will see them again... how wrong can I be ?
The sleeping beauty that still kept an eye on us... 
Wrong I was - means - three months is a good time for the bird to fly over and go anywhere else - no? This was the only small point that I missed out in the entire gambit of planning for hunting this bird. I planned hunt for this bird in the afternoon - when the sun is high - the bird is roosting and there is some light in the thick foliage - the place the birds like to roost during the day.
The mate was roosting well hidden and was just pure chance that we spotted it...
As the afternoon approached we reached the spot and were immediately mobbed by mosquitos. When I say mobbed - I really mean it - they were all over us - attracted perhaps the sweat and the CO2 we were exhaling. Braving all this we peered the top canopy of trees expecting to find some movement or the dark ghost like silhouette outlining the birds. Straining the neck the better part of 15 minutes did not reveal any bird. I personally was disappointed as I was so sure when I promised the birds sitting at the location pointed out by me. In desperation - my partner asked me if he should ring and ask somebody else of location of the birds. My ego was hurt to no bounds - but I had to agree. As he went to fetch his mobile from the car parked in the parking - I peered harder. Suddenly - Voila - there in the thick of the leaves I saw the silhouettes that looked like an Owl. I shouted to him - got it I almost screamed. He ran over and we started the game all over - peering and straining our eyes to find the bird sitting almost 30-40 feet above our heads in thick canopy. Seeing the outlines we at once started taking shots to identify birds. Alas - the birds turned out to be Indian Scops Owl - I mean they are really beautiful and not something you see everyday but then we were expecting something and we did not get it.

Finally after another 15 minutes I resigned to the fact that birds were not there any longer and I asked my partner to ring his friend to ask if there were birds at any other location. He gave us the location and we were off driven to the point specified - 4 km away. There too we were just not convinced that the birds would be there. The logic was simple. The place had a lot of movement and there was what can be constituted as disturbance to birds like owls. We looked around and were ready to move - abandoning the hunt when my partner decided for one last call to see if he can help us with location of the Owls. he had just put his mobile to his ear when he spotted the bird and put down the mobile almost jumping with joy. It was the time I too picked up the bird sitting on a branch. Oh what a sight it was...

Hawk Owls are smallish, small-headed and earless hawk like owls with yellow eyes and longish banded tails. As far as the Brown Hawk Owl is concerned, well - this bird is a 32 cm mid-sized owl with a small white spot over bill. This bird is nocturnal and crepuscular often sitting on top of tree hawking insects. It preys on insects, small bats or other small prey. The bird sounds are included below.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Bird comparison: Purple Sunbird and Loten's Sunbird

Many a time we come across bird with little differences - that tend to confuse us, the birders. Well the birds are different and different in many a ways but to declare - that bird is so and so is always met with raised eyebrows. To top it all in regards to these birds the range overlaps. The Purple sunbird is found in the entire subcontinent - where as the Loten's sunbird is found in Southern India and Srilanka. So the problem is in South India where both the birds exist.

Like I said before the difference are many but it is the field that the problem resides - I have tabulated the differences in the end to but let us se the males of both species.

This bird is known with some more names - the Long-billed Sunbird or Maroon-breasted Sunbird. Well the differences are in the names itself. Whereas the Purple sunbird is fully purple - the Loten's Sunbird has brown chest downwards and this is separated with a maroon band. In field however, if the light is not good - or the bird is not in direct light - it is a small purple bird hopping from one branch to another - just like a purple sunbird. Next difference - the Loten's sunbird is slightly bigger than the purple sunbird - the Loten's being 13 cm and Purple being around 10 cm. Next the bill of Loten's sunbird is fairly bigger than the purple sunbird and for me this has been the greatest difference for me to confidently say - "there - Loten's Sunbird". You really have to see the bird once and compare to know what I am talking about. Next there is a Maroon band on the chest of Loten's that separates the purple of above the chest to browner below. Purple sunbird on the other hand is - what the name says - purple all over 😀. The final difference is if you are lucky to see the birds in mating season when they display their Pectoral Tufts - they are Yellow mixed with crimson in Loten's and pure yellow in Purple Sunbird. I have been lucky to see the Pectoral tufts display in Purple sunbird but have not the opportunity to see them in Loten's. Unfortunately I do not have any usable picture of the bird displaying them - but then I know my friend who has a great snap of a Purple Sunbird displaying the tufts. Will update when I get that picture. The bird calls too are different and am inserting them at the end for you to experience.

So - hopefully when you come across these birds next you will confidently snap your fingers and call out the name.

Loren's Sunbird. See the Maroon Band and brown below the band.

Loren's Sunbird. see the beak and compare with the purple sunbird below.

Purple Sunbird. Notice the fully purple body and the beak - definitely lesser curved and smaller.

Loten’s Sunbird Purple Sunbird Remarks
Size 13 cm 10 cm

Colour 1. Purple above and upto chest
2. Maroon band on chest
3. Brown below the band
Purple all the way in field and in poor light they both are small bundles of purple in a hurry to get somewhere…
Bill Longer and more curved. Comparatively smaller

Pectoral Tufts Yellow mixed with crimson Yellow

Friday, 16 September 2016

Hey cousin ! .... two Storks.... two Continents...

They cannot be mixed up with each other for sure - after all they got separated a million years back but still the similarities are unmistakable. One from Indian Subcontinent and one from Africa. Both more beautiful than the other. The sitting posture, the beak, the basic plumage is all the same you will agree. Infact as we watched them, the behaviour too was absolutely the same. Only thing I missed was that I did not see the Yellow-billed Stork feeding.  That one behaviour would have convinced me more about their being related - I have seen our painted stork feeding so very many times and the feeding is very peculiar. The bird wades in shallow water (knee deep) and opens the bill partially - and sweeps it left and right - any fish, frog etc that touches the beak is quickly snapped up and swallowed. The African cousin at 108cm pictured first is slightly bigger than the Indian Cousin standing at average of 100 cm.

Yellow-billed Stork
Okay now - if you find the bird looking so similar - the birds will be be related in at one level or another. In this case the Family (Ciconiidae) and Genus (Mycteria) are the same. Both are beautiful birds at that and were a great treat to see. Of-course the Painted Stork is one bird that I run into off and on in India.

Painted Stork (though the neck may seem devoid of feathers in this picture - it is just that they are wet and struck together)
I have not inserted the sounds as storks are very poor at making sounds as adults. Most of the times it is the clattering produced by striking the beaks together. 

One unfortunate fact is that the Painted Storks are nearly decimated in wild in Thailand, small populations survive in Cambodia and are under serious threat in Pakistan where the Painted Stork's nests are targeted and chicks harvested for Pet Trade. This puts the conservation status of Painted Storks as Near Threatened.

The Yellow-billed stork populations are known to be decreasing but not rapidly so are still listed as Least Concern.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A Crow of a Time - Uganda

What is with these crows? Photographing crows have been my achillies heel, okay - I might have another dozens of them here and there but this is one of them. You look towards them - they are ready to fly - you pick up the camera - they are already up and away. You really think one can get away with pointing something towards them - forget it - they are way too smart. Point something towards them - they will not only fly away but also keep you in the periphery of their vision and GOD forbid that you look towards them again - this is no way to photograph them. I learnt this the hard way - actually very very hard way. 

Then there is this one more small little problem - they are usually black and I do not know about others but my camera and me included break into a sweat playing with the settings. As if that was not enough the Crows in Uganda turned out to be Black and White - whatever you thought would work just went out of the window - either you will over expose White or you will under-expose black. No way you will land a perfect shot - till the time you are as lucky as me.
Pied Crow
Hide, take a zoom lens, crop the picture and show the world how easy it is to picture crowns 😀
Let me come down to my experience in Uganda - we had two Crows and one Raven in the range we visited. The Piapiac - the unusual crow of East Africa, the Pied Crow and the White-naped Raven. I would discuss the Piapiac in a moment. First the Pied Crow - the crow that looked and behaved like a crown. It was bigger than the common house crow that we so often seen in India. It used to cautiously hop around keeping a lookout towards the humans and perhaps everything else. They sounded like a crow. These were the intelligent types - one look and off they go. They were every where but extremely cautious. Inspite of seeing them everywhere they hardly afforded me photo opportunity. When I did photograph them on two occasions - once they were actually preoccupied and concentrating on the task at their hands and on the second occasion I hid behind a tree and took snapshots of a crow sitting far far away. 
Piapiac - the crow with long tail

The immature Piapiac have red bills that become black as the birds mature.
Piapiac on back of an elephant in Murchison

Now as to why I call Piapiac an unusual crow was that their look and behaviour was not what I have seen of crows in my experience. The tails were long and pointed. The sounds they made was not the croaking sound of a crow but more like a shriek of a parrot, shrike or something. The sounds of the pied crow and the piapiac are in the end of this article for you to compare. Their behaviour too was unlike the crows normally seen. They were all over the place jumping over cows, elephants, giraffes and other animals - that kind of thing is better expected out of oxpeckers and cattle egrets. That is why perhaps they were perhaps as approachable as cattle egrets - not bothered about anything in the world other than what they were doing.

Unfortunately for us - we did not sight any Raven - though there were people in the group who claimed to have seen one. The range of raven was in the vicinity of Entebbe and Kampala. So perhaps some other time...

Sunday, 11 September 2016

A Vulture gone Nuts: Palm-nut Vulture

I was preparing for the trip to Uganda and came across this bird in my book - Palm-nut Vulture. I thought it is an odd name. Odd ? Come off it - of course it was Very Very Odd... Its a fairly small bird, infact the smallest of the Vultures in East Africa. Don't get fooled by that - this small bird is still 60cm (24 inches).

It is a boldly marked black and white raptor with large black patches with white tipped black tail. It also has a funny hunched position while sitting and has a long and large bill with bare pink skin around the eyes.
All said and done - the bird was majestic...
Coming back to the story of the bird's name - Palm-nut Vulture. The range of the bird is fairly large and coincides with the Palm Oil Plantation and the range. Surprisingly - inspite of being a vulture - 65% of its diet consists of fruits of Oil and raffia palms as well as grains of other plants. In addition to this if will take fish, invertebrates, amphibians as well as small mammals, birds and reptiles. It behaves like a vulture feeding on small carcasses too.
This is a chance shot of the bird passing overhead. Notice the fish in it's claws

A bird near lake Victoria as we drove from Entebbe

Sam bird as above...
This birds is not persecuted, but gets affected by habitat loss - particularly in West Africa due to expansion of oil palm plantation that gives it limited opportunities to nest and as a result of harvesting. Infact the major threat now that remains with the most of the birds is the rapidly changing environment in the hands of humans who don't care a damn - considering it a birth right to profit out of whatever means possible.

All the same coming back to the bird - it was a great sighting - that happened on majority of our stay days in Uganda and though photographing of this bird was not very easy as the perch points were generally very high up in the trees.